Empathy in Action: An Exercise in Developing Empathy

Close your eyes, and picture this:

You are born into a relationship-based culture.

Relationships are the most important thing to you, because they are so integral to society.

Not only do they help you rise in the world, but they have your back when you fall.

Everything is tied to these relationships.

How do you see the world? How does this foundation impact your behavior, values, and norms?

Exercise in Empathy

The above was an exercise in empathy

Being able to put yourself into another’s shoes and imagine things from their perspective builds empathy – a tool that you can wield to your advantage.

Last week, we talked about how empathy is an essential personality trait when managing across cultures.

It’s not easily alterable or acquired; some are naturally more empathetic than others.

But like every trait that doesn’t come naturally, one can take actionable steps to develop it.

Developing empathy is an active, voluntary act.

And when working in a cross-cultural environment, you must be willing to volunteer this shift of perspective in order to adapt to your host culture.

We’ve talked a bit about the “monkey experience” in this blog and in my book I am the Monkey.

It’s one example of an exercise in empathy: viewing the world through the eyes of a monkey – and imagining others’ perceptions about you, the monkey, in turn.

It’s a radical shift in perspective, but a necessary exercise in understanding other individuals, other cultures, and better responding to differences in behaviors and values.

Another Exercise

You teach the third grade in New York City.

A new student enters your class. He just moved to America from the U.K. He is timid and visibly shaken. 

How do you sympathize with the student?

You comfort him, sharing with him that you understand his fear in this new situation.

But how do you demonstrate empathy?

Here’s how:

Picture yourself in his shoes: a young foreign child in a new school, new country, new culture.

Although you may never have been in this position yourself, drawing from your own similar well of experiences in unknown places, you may have a sense of what he’s feeling: the fear, the discomfort, the vulnerability, the confusion.

Sympathizing is the first step to creating a cross-cultural warmth of companionship and camaraderie; empathizing goes far deeper.

In this instance, you understand the child’s inner turmoil and are thereby better able to provide support and confidence through your words and actions.

With more information, you can make informed decisions about how to address his discomfort. And empathy gives you that information.

Visualization is the key to empathy – placing yourself into the untied shoes of that third grader, and viewing the big, scary world through his eyes.

This is empathy in action.

Next week, we’ll provide some examples of empathy in the workplace.

Empathy: A Trait That Facilitates Cross-Cultural Relations

What makes good leadership?

Charisma comes to mind. Communication and organizational skills; the ability to influence and delegate; confidence, integrity, accountability, empowerment.

All of these characteristics make for an exceptional leader.

But perhaps one of the most important attributes when working in a cross-cultural environment is empathy.

Putting Yourself in Another’s Shoes

Emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and empathy regularly emerge as principal attributes of those who facilitate cross-cultural relations.

Empathy is defined as

“the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

When you put yourself in another’s shoes, you start to identify with their beliefs or their actions.

You attempt to understand from multiple perspectives, drawing on different cultural backgrounds and the complex nature of human lives.

How Does Empathy Differ From Sympathy?

Sympathy is sometimes used interchangeably with empathy, but they are not one and the same.

When you sympathize with someone, it means you share their feelings; you commiserate with their grief, sorrow, or misfortune.

Often, you offer compassion and comfort simply by acknowledging the person’s difficulties.

“Thoughts and prayers.”

“Sorry for your loss.”

“Thinking of you.”

These are offerings of sympathy.

Empathy, on the other hand, goes a step beyond.

“In Feeling”

From the Greek, “empatheia,” the word is a combination of the prefix, “en,” and the root, “pathos,” meaning “in” and “feeling.”

So, empathy literally means “in feeling.”

When you empathize, not only are you commiserating with someone else’s hardship, you’re taking their feelings upon yourself, feeling what they feel, assuming the emotional anguish or hardship of said individual.

John Steinbeck described the power of empathy, writing,

“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”

As you can probably recognize, empathy in cross-cultural relations is a powerful tool.

When entering a foreign culture, you must be able and willing to understand your colleagues or staff by feeling them in yourself.

Once you empathize and relate to their experiences, you are better positioned to understand their mentality and behavior.

Understanding will help you better navigate any conflicts that arise with individuals or groups.

And that empathy goes both ways.

As a foreign manager, you are the monkey.

So, you can only hope that your colleagues do you the same courtesy by putting themselves in your shoes and trying to understand your foreign ways.

Thus, both sides will observe the golden rule, “treat others as you would like to be treated,” which is what empathy is all about.

Next week, we’ll offer ways in which you can develop this important trait.

“Western Culture” as a Stereotype: Defining “The West”

Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked about stereotypes: how they can be harmful and ways in which you can use them wisely to aid cross-cultural understanding.

In fact, we use stereotypes a lot in this blog.

One of these stereotypes is the broad term, “Western culture,” which is associated with core values, norms, and beliefs.

But what, exactly, is it?

What is “Western Culture”?

What do you think of when you hear the term, “Western culture”?

You probably think of Europe, the United States, Australia, Canada – the latter three of which are highly influenced by Europe, due to their historical roots.

All of these countries mentioned (and others that fall under the umbrella of “Western culture”) hold a common set of values and norms.

However, as we’ve also highlighted in this blog, values and norms vary widely across the countries that fall under this umbrella.

In the U.K., queues are law; in Italy, it’s every man for himself.

German companies run like well-oiled machines; French companies are like royal courts.

Despite these cultural differences on a country-by-country basis, Western cultures share strong commonalities, due to their historical heritage under the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires, as well as the influence of Judeo-Christian religions.

Moreover, 18th-century Enlightenment in Europe brought forth a rationalist and secular-oriented ideology focused on social and scientific progress.

This drove such democratic values as the separation of church and state, human rights, capitalism, modern technology, and political pluralism.

Western Culture is a Stereotype 

Up until now, we never defined “Western culture” in this blog.

Yet, somehow, we all understood what it means.

This is due to the fact that “Western culture” is as much a stereotype as anything else. 

The behaviors of someone from “the West” are fixed in our mind, contrasted with how those from an Eastern culture might act or the ideology and values they might live by.

So, while we know there are differences between the values and behaviors of Australians, Europeans, Americans, etc. – and even further, between countries, regions, subcultures, and even individuals in each culture – we still recognize the broad commonalities that exist across all of “the West.” 

Use Your Discretion

If I board a plane and am seated between a Swiss person and an American, I would be more inclined to talk to the American.

This is not because I am opposed to the Swiss (I am Swiss); it’s because I want to be courteous.

Americans generally like small talk with strangers in public settings; Swiss generally don’t.

However, some Swiss might actually be prone to small talk, while some Americans will put their earbuds in immediately.

The point is, when it comes to stereotypes, applying them wisely means to use your discretion when approaching each individual.

Test the waters, apply your observational skills, and proceed accordingly.

Stereotypes blanket entire populaces, but they don’t take into account the individuality of people.

So, rather than presuming each person is attached to the stereotypical values, norms, and behaviors of their cultures, tuning in to the individual nature of a person’s preferences, priorities, and behaviors will allow you to avoid misusing stereotypes.

A New Frame of Interpretation: How Analogies Can Help Direct Cross-Cultural Behaviors

Meet Marie.

Marie is a German business consultant tasked with reorganizing a French company.

Excited with the prospect, Marie initially enjoyed her frequent trips to Paris and the directive with which she was tasked. But soon, she faced regular roadblocks that would make the fun project a chore.

The French company she was to reorganize was hierarchical and centralized. Despite this, Marie had difficulty identifying the appropriate decision-makers, as a number of people claimed to be in charge though they didn’t actually hold any power in moving the project forward.

Their interference threw rocks into the cogs of this project, slowing it to a standstill, and the delay resulted in even less support from the French team.

At this point, she wasn’t even able to secure a meeting with management or access the information required to complete her mission.

Marie had two choices: a) abandon the project, or b) find someone who could assist in her cross-cultural understanding of the way a stereotypical French company functions.

The Working Parts of a French Company

Marie was lucky enough to find her Zookeeper at the wedding party of a friend.

Using an analogy, this Zookeeper – a French manager who’d worked for over a decade in Germany – managed to crystalize Marie’s understanding of the hierarchy in the French office and the politics with which it functioned.

The Zookeeper told her, first of all, to abandon her German ideas of how an office should function. Unlike in Germany, companies in France don’t function like well-oiled machines.

Instead, he said, they are more like royal courts, in which the CEO reigns supreme. He is the king, and surrounding him, are his noblemen, knights, servants, etc. – all of whom vie for his attention.

They do this by constructing their own fiefdoms.

As Marie was someone sent in from the outside to manage a project, she should navigate this world like an earl.

As quoted from I am the Monkey, the Zookeeper advised:

“Be humble in the right moment. Be bold in the right moment. Be courteous when required. Be rude when needed. Build your political relationship and network, until you have the ear and favor of the king or one of his important ministers.”

By abandoning her expectations that a French office should function like a German one, Marie would be able to get the job done effectively in this foreign culture.

A Culture’s Office Hierarchy is Often a Microcosm of the Country’s Structural Macrocosm

France, itself, has a thousand-year-old history of strong monarchies. Further, its current politics is centered around a strong presidential state; so much so that President François Mitterand was deemed the “last French King.”

French thinking and the stereotypical hierarchies of French companies have been influenced by this historical structure and the way in which it functions.

In understanding this, Marie was able to adapt her behavior to a new frame of interpretation.

The idea that “French companies are like royal courts” created a firmer, almost visceral blueprint for not only what was expected from her, but for the methods by which she could achieve her goal in this setting that differed greatly from her own back in Germany.

This is one example of how analogies can aid a manager’s understanding of a new cross-cultural environment. We’ll be talking more about creating analogies in the coming weeks.

Ethnocentrism and the Workplace: How Our Biases Enter Into Business Relations

We’ve talked about ethnocentrism the past couple weeks and the ways in which it might crop up in cross-cultural research.

But ethnocentrism isn’t just a vague concept that infiltrates research; it often shows up in your average everyday workplace.

Let’s take a look at how and why.

Ethnocentrism in Business Communication

International business ventures require that individuals communicate cross-culturally.

This can either turn into a promising business partnership and even a delightful way to share cultures or into a complete devolution of business relations.

Let’s take a look at one example:

Ted (from the U.S.) sets up a video conference with Saanvi (from India).

“Let’s talk tomorrow at 8 AM, sharp,” he writes.

The next day, Ted logs into the video conference room at 7:45. 8 AM rolls around, and there’s no sign of Saanvi. Ted shoots Saanvi a quick message to let him know he’s there. By 8:10, Saanvi still hasn’t shown up. Ted is growing impatient. At 8:30, Ted sends Saanvi a curt message about rescheduling and then signs off.

Saanvi later responds to Ted, indicating that he did eventually show up to the online conference room. He video calls Ted, and when Ted asks if Saanvi can talk the next day at the same time, Saanvi nods.

The following day, the same thing happens. Ted is livid. Saanvi had confirmed with his nod, after all.

There are a few things going on cross-culturally here, and both Ted and Saanvi would do better to understanding these cross-cultural issues.

Punctuality & Visual Cues

Ted and Saanvi come from two different backgrounds, two different traditions. They possess different values and likely have different approaches to business and methods of communication.

They likely process things from their own cultural conditioning.

This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. With basic cross-cultural understanding, one might be able to acknowledge and accept this gap. And with an even more specific mastery of the cross-cultural differences between your culture and the other, one might be able to bridge that gap effectively.

With nothing but ethnocentrism, the gap widens and business relations potentially implode.

Why?

Because when the individuals involved do not have a basic understanding of cross-cultural issues, they don’t know that the differences in communication aren’t intentional rudeness or unprofessionalism; they may simply be cultural differences.

For instance, whereas in America, time is money, punctuality is generally taken lightly in India. Even VIPs may show up late to business meetings.

Moreover, when Indians nod their heads, the movement doesn’t necessarily mean ‘yes.’ Rather, the nod can be employed simply to show they’re being attentive to what you’re saying.

Instead of understanding the other culture, both Ted and Saanvi refused to acknowledge and adapt at all to their counterparts and instead forced their own ethnocentric business standards upon the other.

In this case, they both look like monkeys in each other’s eyes.

Without understanding and compromising to some degree, ethnocentrism can become a toxic trait, creating chasms in business relations and in cross-cultural workplaces where there should be bridges.

Step 1 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Awareness

What happens when you wade into the waters of a new culture, one in which the waves are warmer or colder, one in which the fish are either all the same size and shade of neon, or where there are many different sizes, shapes, colors, and species?

How would you react to the change in the tide?

You’d likely feel like a fish out of water.

Heightened Awareness

When we’re put into an environment that’s unlike our own, it sets off our spidey-senses. Suddenly, our awareness is heightened, because everything that’s going on around us is all too different. And when something is a tiny bit off, it feels uncanny.

This can make us uncertain of our environment and uncomfortable in our own skin. Depending on the type of person you are – whether you’re adaptable or one who rarely leaves his/her indentation on the couch – the distinct awareness of all that is different may trickle in, little by little, or it may blast you with immediate discomfort and leave you soaking in anxiety.

Yes, living and managing in a foreign culture can be overwhelming. But it’s not impossible, even for those who live for their comfort zone.

The key is to use your spidey senses for good. Being culturally aware of your surroundings and behavior can help you limit – or even eliminate – the “monkey moments” you may encounter.

Monkey Moments

What’s a monkey moment?

Remember last week, when I said that you are the monkey in the zoo? Well, a “monkey moment” is when your monkey-ness is made clear and apparent to your host culture.

Your hosts are the spectators, remember; they’re the normal ones, the humans. So they’re watching and waiting for you to make a mistake, to behave like a monkey. They expect it from you. The moment you drop the ball, forget to be culturally aware, and start to fling your poo – that’s when they’ll see you for what you are.

While this isn’t to say you must abandon your culture, else your hosts won’t accept you, this is to say that being culturally aware will make you a more effective leader and integrator in a foreign culture.

Making Your Awareness Actionable

When you first arrive to your host country, you will see yourself as normal and the environment/the “other” as strange. This is instinctive. But you must remember:

What seems unfamiliar is not necessarily unnatural.

Knowing this will help you develop cultural sensitivity, which you’ll need in order to make your awareness actionable. I’ll discuss how to do that in next week’s blog.

How Culture Shapes Our World

You woke up this morning and ate a breakfast of eggs and toast without consciously realizing that breakfast was culture.

You dressed, got ready, did your hair, suited up without realizing that style is culture.

You went to work by metro, jostled in between a man in sneakers and sweatpants and a woman in a pantsuit, both on their smartphones, without realizing that mode of transportation, personal space, and gender equality are culture.

You sat in on a morning meeting, putting forth your ideas, your boss nodding along, without realizing that business and hierarchical structures are culture.

You chatted with your colleagues about the latest episode of Game of Thrones without realizing communication and entertainment are culture.

Although culture can appear in the form of tangible things – fashion, entertainment, food, etc. – our own culture is, for the most part, invisible. We don’t often say, “Hey, look – there’s culture!” We breathe it without thinking about it.

And, yet, culture shapes everything in our world.

The Not-So-Invisible Shapes of Culture

Being that culture is so alive and vibrant, it’s not so much that you don’t see culture or know it’s there. The thing is, you’re often blind to your own culture, until it’s contrasted with others.

For instance, here are a few cultural differences. Consider your own culture’s preferences in contrast with those below:

  • Greetings – a handshake in America, a kiss on both cheeks in Italy, a bow in Japan
  • Breakfast – a croissant in France, bread and honey in Morocco, fried noodles in China
  • Common mode of transport – a car in Los Angeles, the Underground in London, a bicycle in Amsterdam
  • Punctuality – extremely punctual in Switzerland, very late in Thailand, punctual in business/not so much in personal matters in Chile
  • Sports – hockey in Canada, cricket in India, football basically everywhere else in the world

These are just some of the ways in which cultures differ. Now, imagine yourself trying to integrate some of these foreign cultural preferences into your life.

Cross-Cultural Understanding

Most of the things around you are culture, from what you eat to what you watch to what you wear, from how you get around to how you think and speak. Apart from your genetic material, culture is everything that shapes who you are and how you view the world.

Knowing all this, in order to integrate into another culture, you must make an effort to stop Viewing Others Through Your Own Culture-Tinted Glasses.

Next week, I’ll provide tips on how to do just that. Stay tuned.